03/06/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

The Evolution of Anti-Evolutionism

Anti-evolution bills continue to circulate in school districts across the country. The concerns that motivate the bills are now about a century old, first making headlines in the famous trial of John Scopes, on trial for disobeying a Tennessee law known as the Butler Act passed in 1925. The law read:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Scopes was declared guilty in this celebrated trial but anti-evolution lost in the court of public opinion. Laws similar to the Butler Act were quietly ignored in other states. In 1968 the Supreme Court struck down a similar law, still on the books in Arkansas. Mississippi's supreme court struck down their version of the law two years later.

Anti-evolution reappeared in a new form in a 1982 trial in Arkansas with a more modest demand for a "balanced treatment of creation science and evolution science." If creationism could not be legally mandated as the only thing taught about origins, surely it was reasonable to demand that it have a place alongside evolution. In a much examined decision, Judge Overton declared that creationism was religion and had no place in America's science classrooms.

Overton's decision effectively guaranteed that creationism -- at least any version resembling the biblical story, which the Arkansas version did -- would never have a place in science classrooms funded by American taxpayers. The decision forced the anti-evolution movement to adopt a new strategy, known as Intelligent Design or ID.

The supporters of ID, who are strongly anti-evolution and overwhelmingly Christian, promote the idea that a creative "intelligence" is responsible for the appearance and development of life on earth. Because they don't identify this intelligence as God -- the only actual alternative they have ever offered is that it could be "space aliens" -- ID must be regarded as non-religious.

ID went on trial in Dover, PA in 2005 after a local school board mandated a curriculum requiring the teaching of ID, and promoting an ID textbook Of Pandas and People as the appropriate anti-evolutionary resource. The trial was a disaster for ID. The textbook was shown to have been a creationist text that had replaced "creationism" with "intelligent design." The judge handed down an aggressive ruling that ID was really creationism, and thus religious.

Anti-evolution was defeated in Dover, just as it had been in Arkansas, Mississippi and, for practical purposes, in Dayton, Tenn. But it was not killed and, as the saying goes, "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." And sure enough, a Gallup poll taken last year showed a significant increase -- from 40 percent to 46 percent -- in the popularity of creationism (46 percent endorsed the choice "God created humans in present form").

Anti-evolution bills continue to circulate with no sign of diminishing. Each time they reappear, their demands are more modest, evolving in response to their last failure. From outlawing evolution in Tennessee, to "equal time" for creationism in Arkansas, to "ID" in Pennsylvania, the argument has now become "teach the controversy." The same people, using the same strategies, spurred on by the same motivations, now call for America's public schools to present the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, often described as "teaching the controversy." Anti-evolutionists charge that academic freedom demands they be heard. After all, should not teachers be permitted, encouraged or perhaps even required to present both sides of any scientific controversy?

Anti-evolutionary leadership comes from the well-funded and sophisticated Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash., which enthusiastically reported that "eleven bills addressing academic freedom in science education" were soon to be voted on to possibly become law. (Some failed recently.) In particular, Montana's HB 183 was applauded because it would "free K-12 public school science teachers from fear of administrative reprisal to teach objectively both sides of scientific controversies..."

This new strategy is compelling and one can hear the rhetorical packaging: "All those who oppose academic freedom for America's public schools raise their hand." No hands? I thought so. One right-wing ID pundit is arguing that "Teaching the controversy is a good liberal cause."

The call to "teach the controversy," despite its noble sound and appeal to American intuitions about fairness, is built on a lie and an abysmal confusion about science pedagogy.

The "controversies" don't exist and, if they did, they would be poor choices to hand over to high school students to adjudicate. Imagine, for example, asking high school students to decide whether the laws relevant to radioactive decay have been constant since the earth first appeared. How would they even think about this? Take the age of the earth as an example of one such "controversy" on which the Discovery Institute has been careful not to take sides. The age of the earth was a matter of some controversy for well over a century -- but that century ended a hundred years ago! Used to dating the earth at about 10,000 years using the Bible, geologists determined that it was much older more than two centuries ago. At first the numbers were varied and uncertain; different dating methods yielded different results. There was no consensus in 1850 -- a real controversy existed.

But when scientists don't agree, they work energetically to find out what is wrong. Research is done to gather more data; papers are published highlighting the disagreements and asking tough questions. More data is gathered. Conferences are held to address the problem. Very bright young people eagerly go into this field because it is obviously in need of fresh thinking. More data is gathered. Young whippersnappers brashly challenge their elders. Fogeys with their heels dug in gradually become marginalized. More data is gathered. Slowly the discrepancies begin to disappear under a mountain of fresh data until the reasons for the differences vanish and a consensus emerges.

Students who go on to study science and join the scientific community will one day work on actual scientific controversies -- and there are many. But they are not the ones that the anti-evolutionists want to see in America's public schools. We do our students no favor by pretending that religiously motivated objections to well-established ideas constitute genuine scientific controversies.